Edinburgh Festival: The star-spangled stand-up

Harvey Fierstein, legendary actor and drag queen, talks to Deborah Orr
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The Independent Culture
Harvey Fierstein has been around for ever. So how come he's only 45? This isn't one of those "Don't lie about your age, you old queen" questions. Instead it's an example of what I've come to think of as the Victoria Wood phenomenon. You sit at your mother's feet watching grown- up stars on television, then find that 20 years on they're singing comic songs about becoming a mum just at the time you've become one yourself.

Was Harvey Fierstein always just eight years older than I am? Yes. So how come he's a stately homo already, the man who 20 years ago was the first openly gay actor in Hollywood, and the man whose most celebrated work, Torch Song Trilogy, was the first gay play ever to make a profit on Broadway? Which is surely quite a milestone in the staggering global rise of the pink pound.

The reason is simple. He made his acting debut in 1971 - in Andy Warhol's one play, Pork, at the age of 17, and after that the work kept on coming. Surprising, unlikely, fame came early to him, so early that possibly alone among the world population of gay men he was relieved to hit 30. "I couldn't wait for the big day," he sighs in his breathy, not-as-camp-as-they-once- seemed tones. "Finally people would stop calling me an enfant terrible."

And while by all accounts, including his own ("I was a bad little boy"), Fierstein's enfancy was as terrible as they come, he is now settling into middle age in the Connecticut countryside, with two big dogs and two small cats for company, and a picturesque problem with the deer who snack on his herbaceous borders.

He doesn't drink any more, or take drugs, and wouldn't dream of having sex in George Michael's toilet ("Largely because I don't want to supply the right with ammunition against me"). He lives out of town because it's the best way for him to achieve discipline as a writer, and sweeps into New York for a clean and sober night out once a week. At a time when many of his contemporaries among gay activists have become disenchanted with the Clinton administration, Fierstein stays loyal and now is busily lending a hand in the Al Gore presidential campaign.

"I was asked to take part in a gay and lesbian fund-raiser for the Gore campaign," he says, "and Tipper Gore asked me if I'd introduce her. Now I've had my run-ins with Tipper, and when she campaigned for the censorship of rap music, I went to town on the bitch. But I introduced her anyway, because if she asked me to do it, then she didn't mind me having a different opinion to her sometimes. But then 10 members of Act-Up started screaming and carrying on, and it just made me think I didn't want to have anything to do with them any more. What is the point of screaming and shouting like that to an audience of gays and lesbians?"

But actually, while Fierstein has been identified with gay activism in much the way that chutney has been teamed up with cheese, he has never been a screamer. Asked years ago to take part in a Broadway benefit for the Catholic Church, which was billed as a tribute to Cardinal O'Connor, he simply found out who else had agreed to take part, quietly telephoned them and explained that the Cardinal did not deserve a tribute because he was anti-gay and "pro-life". He exhorted the committed performers to fail to appear on the night, with the result that the Cardinal's tribute was carried out by three lonesome celebrities. This, says Fierstein, is the kind of activism which is "stealthy, not vicious".

While it is none the less true to say that Fierstein has mellowed with age, it is also true that his continuing mainstream acceptance says as much about the way the world has changed in two decades as it does about any compact he might have made with middle America. He is currently involved in putting together a children's special for HBO, which, because it caters to gay children, has incensed the American right. Such, however, is Fierstein's popularity that he remains confident that the moral majority will make no personal attacks on him.

This is partly because the world has caught up with him. The Fiersteins of this world don't seem as outrageous now as they did when he started out, simply because while in those days you couldn't be an openly gay drag queen, these days you can get a sex change on the NHS without so much as the bat of a false eyelash. As for straight drag queens, well, there's something perverse about that, isn't there?

But the word on his one-man show, which comes to Europe next week, is that there is plenty in it to outrage those who enjoy that sort of thing. It's entitled This Is Not Going To Be Pretty, and billed as a combination of musical numbers, irreverent impersonations and biting political satire; Fierstein calls it "an enlarged cabaret, stand-up with music which when it works should have a hellzapoppin' feel to it".

What would be an example of hellzapoppin' material? "I think that when I'm in London I really must do my Nancy Reagan Tribute," he says, going on to elaborate on the Lewinsky affair. "What kind of blow-job was poor Bill Clinton getting, when it didn't interrupt the business he was conducting on the phone? When she was an actress, Nancy Reagan had a reputation for being the best blow-job in Hollywood. Times have changed and it's clear that the heterosexual men of America are very much in need of a good blow-job. These men need Nancy, and that's my tribute to her."

I'm not really sure if this is an example of the show's biting political satire. I hope instead that it falls under the irreverent impersonations category, though it's difficult to see how that can raise it from the level of sheer vulgarity. This I feel could possibly save the sketch. I don't regale Fierstein with my doubts about his material though, for he has already explained to me the philosophy of life he has adopted to help him to cope with the pressures of fame. "What other people think of you," he declares, "is none of your f------ business." This, I feel has an irresistible logic. I can't help wondering if Victoria Wood would subscribe to such a theory.

`This is Not Going To Be Pretty': 13 August, Usher Hall, Edinburgh (0131 228 1155); 15 August, Adelphi, London WC2 (0171 344 0055)